Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Impressions of the Volozhin Yeshiva and it's head, Rabbi Itzele, from Max Lilienthal's visit in 1840.

I'm sure Max Lilienthal (1815-1882) needs no introduction, but for the purposes of this post, it's worth giving a brief explanation for what follows. Lilienthal was a young PhD who was appointed schoolmaster of a modern Jewish school in 1839. Given his talents and successes there, and a recommendation by Ludwig Philippson, editor of the Algemeine Zeitung des Judenthusm, the Russian government appointed him in 1840 to try to reform Jewish education and establish modern schools. Lilienthal was no dope and knew that this could only succeed if he could convince the rabbonim and rebbes to support it. For this purpose he undertook a trip to the traditional communities in Russia, to learn, listen and try to persuade.

He was unsuccessful, etc. His own official account is that he realized that the Russian government did not have the best interest of the Jews in mind. The "Making of a Godol account" is that while he subsequently gave this as the reason, in fact he was suspected of some illegal economic activities and had to depart Russia. I don't see these as mutually exclusive. Either way, he settled in the United States where he became an Orthodox rabbi - he really was exactly that, even organizing a Chevra Shas in his schul - although he soon began leaning toward Reform, eventually becoming one of the pioneering American Reform rabbis. See also Hyman Grinstein's article "The minute book of Lilienthal's union of German synagogues in New York " (HUCA 18, 1944).

In the mid 1850s he published an English translation of extracts from his diary of his travels in Russia in the newspaper the Israelite. These were reprinted in David Philipson's 1915 book Max Lilienthal, American Rabbi.

Below are the passages concerning his meetings with R. Itzele Volozhiner, R. Chaim of Volozhin's son, rosh yeshiva of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva. The account is interesting for many reasons; it included his impressions of R. Itzele, and his son-in-law Reb Lebele (i.e., the 30-year old Neziv).

His description of the first day of Selichos is amazing. He was awoken at 3 AM for the Selichos which were to commence at 4 AM. In the street he witnessed a mass of women dressed in white, carrying lanterns through the streets of Vilna, to the synagogues.

He records that he was given maftir in the main (?) synagogue in Vilna - where he was seated in the absent rabbi's seat - but told not to read the haftarah himself. Lilienthal says that this was the practice so as not to embarrass anyone who couldn't read, but one wonders if it was because the haftarah was read on a klaf (handwritten, unvocalized parchment roll) as per the Gra (which is doubtful to me anyway). But if so, it really would be the same reason anyway ("not to confound the ignorant.") But of course it's strange to think that an unprepared Lilienthal could have read it from a klaf in the first place, and he implies that he would have read the haftarah if he had not been told not to. If they did read it on a klaf it seems a little odd that he didn't notice it or think to remark on it, so it probably wasn't read on a klaf at all. Another possibility, judging by a comment R. Itzele made about how he read Hebrew (see below), after reading the beracha and thus demonstrating how he recited Hebrew someone in charge decided that he shouldn't read the haftarah. However, the second day of Rosh Hashanah he was given an aliya in another minyan and asked to read the Torah, so it's probably like he said in the first place: only the ba'al keriah read the haftarah in the main synagogue so as not to "confound the ignorant." He visited the Gra's kloiz on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and noted that the angels are not mention in the prayers related to the blowing of the shofar, as per the Vilna Gaon himself. Lilienthal seems to have taken this positively, seeing it as directed against superstition.

Upon arriving in Volozhin, he also was met with many ("a hundred") people for whom his reputation had preceded him. They asked him if he was the "Datsche Rof" (German rabbi). Here it might be appropriate to mention something I read recently in the first volume of Bialik's folklore journal Reshumos, but haven't seen quoted anywhere else. This concerns a later period, probably the 1860s. It seems there was a person named Mendele who was known as the Baal Gematrios, because he could quickly come up with a Gematriya for anything. One time Mendele walked into an inn and came upon a group of bareheaded Jews dressed in modern clothing eating and drinking. So he said to them, "Sholom Aleichem, Berliners!" One of them answered, "Aleichem Sholom, Karliner!" He thought for a second, and said that to the guy that he is right. The difference between a ברלינער and a קרלינער is כובע (a hat; Gematria is 98).

Getting back to Volozhin, other points of interest is that he quotes R. Itzele as telling him, after he has him recite the zimun, that he reads Hebrew "like a proselyte." For his part, Lilienthal thought he himself was reading it German-style. He also (famously at this point) quotes R. Itzele as explaining to him that in a typical morning in the yeshiva he gives a Chumash-Rashi shiur, in which he includes some of his own remarks and some things from the Mendelssohn Be'ur commentary. One wonders if this was true, or said to impress Lilienthal - but in a way it's a distinction without a difference. Kosher enough to tell him, is the point. As for whether it's a sheer fabrication on Lilienthal's part, that seems very unlikely, as all it did was serve to make R. Itzele seem a little bit enlightened, and what did Lilienthal gain, writing in his own diary - or in English in Ohio in 1856 - by fabricating this?

He also notes that R. Itzele invited him Erev Yom Kippur to join him at the mikva, which he declined.



  1. Many readers might recall that in R. Baruch Epstein's Mekor Baruch he speaks very highly of Lilienthal, and notes that the Neziv thought well of him. In the "My Uncle the Netziv" version, there is a note added at the end of the chapter on Lilienthal that reads as follows:

    (Editor's note: While it may be true that Lilienthal fled from Russia to avoid being a Czarist tool against his fellow Jews, his subsequent activities proved him most unworthy of the author's high regard. From 1855 until his death, he was a Reform rabbi in Cincinnati and was actively involved in promoting Reform throughout the Western states. He was also one of the original faculty members of Hebrew Union College.)

    Although Epstein does note that he moved to America, he doesn't mention that he was/ became a Reform rabbi. However, in my opinion this is no reason to assume that he didn't know. Epstein was writing in the 1920s, it is obvious that he read widely in various languages, and kept abreast of all the gossip and interesting stuff, which his book is chock full. So it seems very unlikely that he had no idea what became of Lilienthal, or that if he did he would not have written highly of him and his intentions. Rather, in my view, Epstein is one of those people who actually don't interpret a person's earlier actions in light of later events unless they can be shown to be directly related - as is proper. Thus, I see no contradiction in someone accepting that Lilienthal acted in a praiseworthy way in Russia even though he eventually changed into a man with whom he would strongly disagree. Sometimes things are what they seem.

  2. shkoyach for this post ... an enjoyable read

  3. The haftara would have been read out of a scroll in the main shul in Vilna:

    Hayyé Adam I 31:40:

    ואמנם הגר"א הנהיג בקהילתנו לאחר שתיקן לכתוב נביאים וכתובים על קלף ובגלילה כספר תורה, ואם כן הוא מוציא כל הצבור כקריאת ספר תורה

    `Arokh Ha-shulhan YD §244:

    ובליט"א יש הרבה מקומות שכותבין נביאים שלימים ויש שכותבין רק ההפטרות וכך חובתינו וכך יפה לנו

  4. Re your discussion about the klaf - I know he says "haphtarah", but isnt he just confusing or conflating the fact that the 7 olim only recite the berachas for leining, and do not read themselves, because of their inability to do so? He seems to me mixing up regular keriah with haphtarah, and also mixing up this principle with the similar but different principle said elsewhere of שלא לבייש מי שאין לו

    But what do you expect from a guy from Ohio?

  5. "But what do you expect from a guy from Ohio?"

    LOL The problem is that he did know. He learned in yeshiva too.

    That said, *I* may have misinterpreted him. "So as not to confound" doesn't mean "not to embarrass." And I admit that I was a little stumped by it. It could mean that the ignorant wouldn't *understand* or be able to follow along with just anyone who got up to lein it, so only one person was designated to read it.

    Also, it's possible that he meant the maftir itself, ie, the last 4 or 5 pesukim in the Torah. Maybe it was a given in those times that people who did shenayim mikra could be expected to read it, or maybe there was such a minhag back home? Especially if they let you know ahead of time, conceivably you could prepare those pesukim. Note that when he received an aliya on the second day in a side minyan, he says he *was* invited to read, though he didn't specify which aliya it was. Since it's difficult to believe that he or anyone could be asked to read an aliya on the spot, maybe he meant the maftir pesukim.

  6. Liliental y"sh was never an orthodox Jew, let alone an orthodox rabbi. The true reason for his flight to America is given here. The immediate cause of his flight was indeed that he was falsely accused of misappropriating government money; the reason why that accusation (and the evidence to support it) arose, was the Tzemach Tzedek's prayers on Rosh Hashana.

  7. What did he mean that R' Itzele wore a tallis for a mincha?

  8. Milhouse, you're not embarrassed to tell fairy tales?

  9. Anon, since it doesn't sound like he was the shaliach tzibur, maybe R. Itzele wore tallis and tefillin when he davened mincha?

  10. " The difference between a ברלינער and a קרלינער is כובע (a hat; Gematria is 98)."

    Only if you cheat and omit an 'ayin after the Bais.

  11. Actually, in the print version the whole thing is spelled Hebrew style, ברלינר and קרלינר.

  12. Maybe that's really what Kennedy meant to say. Not "ein berliner" but "kein karliner". [= "I wear no hat!"]

  13. Having one person read the brachos before and after the haftarah and another person read the haftarah itself is not such an uncommon practice. If it was done so as not to "confound the ignorant," I take it that this means that a less than fluent reader would sometimes be given the honor of the aliyah, but someone else would do the job for him so that he would not break his teeth over it. In my shul, there are times when there is a haftarah that I like, but I can't get that aliyah because I'm the only kohen present that day. In such cases, the gabbai gives me the kohen's aliyah, then later gives himself the maftir and says the brachos for the haftarah, but lets me do the actual reading.

    And yes, I have been called upon to read the Torah "on the spot." This once happened to me on a visit to a certain shul in Riverdale on a weekday Rosh Chodesh morning, when none of the regulars were up to the job and they asked if anyone else could do it. In the land of the blind, etc., so I volunteered and muddled through. I trust this seldom happened in Vilna.


  15. The fact that the first Selichos in Vilna began at 4 AM lends credence to a friend of mine's claim that saying the first Selichos at 1 AM (some call it midnight madness >:-} ) is an American innovation and was not practiced (widely) in Europe, My father-in-law, who is from Ungvar, told me that selichos there began at 4 AM every morning except for Erev Rosh Hashana, when they began earlier. (Keep in mind that there was no daylight savings time then.)

  16. >a friend of mine's claim that saying the first Selichos at 1 AM (some call it midnight madness >:-} ) is an American innovation and was not practiced (widely) in Europe . . .

    Imagine if someone tried to tell you what the "American" practice is today, for anything. You'd laugh, because there is no such thing. There's ten thousand shuls in a thousand different communities, and every one has its own practice. It was the same thing in Europe. And they didnt even have the standardizing tendencies that comes with mass, cheap printing and the common language of English. I can assure you there must have been plenty of shuls who started at 1am, and, also just like today, and more importantly for today's frummies, plenty that did not wait till halachic chatzos.

  17. <:-} ) is an American innovation and was not practiced (widely) in Europe >>

    Seeing that it is the widespread practice in England and Australia, I don't think it started in America.

  18. In fairness, this was the early 1840s. Things were still very traditional in Russia. In fact, Jews at that point were even required to get official government permission to wear modern clothing. So we should not retroject our impression of the communal state of affairs in Russia 60 or 80 (or 20) years later onto an earlier period and assume one way or the other. It could well be that in Vilna in 1840 there was one time to say the first selichos: 4 AM.

  19. I've been reading this book all day at work on google books, and have been mesmerized. This and other similiar works should really be required reading, for yeshiva students to learn how bad life was in Europe, and to have people appreciate how good the USA is. Even if the "kefira" is redacted, it should still berequired reading.

  20. its a must to read the whole chapter of his travels in Russia you will appreciate your heritage what a great holy life they lived its mamesh a musar sefer the part about vilna. by the way all negative should be taken with a heaping grain of salt



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